Spent Fuel Disposal Debate Heats Up

October 25, 1996

Spent Fuel Disposal Debate Heats Up

The high-level radioactive waste disposal issue is expected to heat up long before the 1998 deadline for the federal government to take over waste from nuclear power plant owners.

Without an acceptable storage facility available, or even in sight, the government may have to pay nuclear power plants to continue to store their spent fuel until the Energy Department selects and builds a facility, according to wire reports.

Paying utilities is one of the few options available to the Energy Department after its decision this week to bow to an appeals court ruling that under a 1982 law, the government must take control of spent fuel from commercial power plants by February 1998.

The Energy Department is reviewing its options, but does not expect to have a dump ready before 2010, and that is only if tests on Yucca Mountain in Nevada prove the site is safe for burying radioactive waste for thousands of years. Not all of the 110 U.S. nuclear plants are expected to run out of storage space before 2010.

Once nuclear power plants run out of storage space for spent fuel in pools and move to dry casks, costs will be $34 million to $50 million for a unit that could hold 500 metric tons of uranium.

Nuclear plants have generated 32,000 metric tons of spent fuel over the last 40 years.

Reimbursing producers of the waste for their storage would probably entail crediting them for payments into the federal nuclear waste fund from 1998 onward.

But how the whole issue will be resolved depends on Congress next year. The Senate passed a bill in July calling for temporary storage, but the margin was not wide enough to override a veto promised by the President. Because of the veto threat, the House never voted on similar legislation, but the Republicans are expected to revive the bill early next year.

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